Pubs and restaurants could reopen now without risking public health, says Oxford scientist

Bill Gardner
Boris Johnson announced the 'extraordinary' closure of the UK's pubs and restaurants on March 20 - Matt Dunham/AP

Pubs and restaurants could reopen tomorrow without posing the threat of a second wave of coronavirus, a leading Oxford scientist has suggested.

Sunetra Gupta, a professor of Theoretical Epidemiology, said there was a "strong possibility" that the hospitality industry could get back to work without posing a danger to the public.

In an interview with the website UnHerd, Prof Gupta called for a "rapid exit" from lockdown and said the coronavirus epidemic was already "on the way out". Much of the UK population may already have been exposed to the virus before the Government ordered people to stay at home, she added.

In March, Prof Gupta and her team published a controversial study claiming coronavirus had been spreading for months, with up to half the UK population already exposed.

However a separate analysis, produced by Professor Neil Ferguson at Imperial University, claimed the virus had not yet begun to spread and warned that 510,000 people could die if no action was taken. The Imperial study convinced ministers to introduce strict lockdown measures days later.

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Prof Gupta insisted during an interview with Unherd website that her original theory was correct and the UK had already developed a high level of "herd immunity" to coronavirus, adding that the fatality rate was likely to be in the region of only five people per 100,000 cases.

"The Government's defence is that this [the Imperial College model] was a plausible worst case scenario," she said. "I agree it was a plausible – or at least a possible – worst case scenario.

"The question is, should we act on a possible worst case scenario, given the costs of lockdown? It seems to me that, given that the costs of lockdown are mounting, that case is becoming more and more fragile. 

"I would say that it is more likely that the pathogen arrived earlier than we think it did, that it had already spread substantially through the population by the time lockdown was put in place. I think there's a chance we might have done better by doing nothing at all."

Prof Gupta said it was likely that many people had already "fended off" coronavirus for genetic reasons or through natural immunity to other coronaviruses such as the common cold.

She added there was now a "strong possibility" that pubs, nightclubs and festivals could reopen this week without risking public health.

"In almost every context we've seen the epidemic grow, turn around and die away, almost like clockwork," Prof Gupta said. "Different countries have had different lockdown policies, and yet what we've observed is almost a uniform pattern of behaviour. To me, that suggests that much of the driving force here was due to the build-up of immunity."

Meanwhile, pubs have warned that the two-metre social distancing rule would make it "very difficult" for them to operate.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) said that if the UK followed the World Health Organisation's advice of imposing a one-metre distance it would "enable many more pubs to viably reopen and serve their communities again".

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), however, has advised ministers that the two-metre rule should stay.